A new Asheville City Council met Dec. 10, with Esther Manheimer sworn in as mayor, Marc Hunt chosen as the new vice mayor, three development decisions postponed and neighborhood leaders raising concerns about issues in East Asheville. (Photo by Alicia Funderburk)
New facesThings started earlier than usual at City Hall. Council chambers were packed before the late-afternoon ceremony as residents, supporters and family members gathered to see Manheimer and three Council members sworn in. The newest Council member, Gwen Wisler, joined re-elected Council members Cecil Bothwell and Gordon Smith.
Council unanimously chose Hunt as vice mayor, with Council member Jan Davis (a former vice mayor himself) noting he felt Hunt was best suited to "hold up the arms of the mayor" and attend to the position's administrative role. Manheimer praised former Mayor Terry Bellamy as bringing a new level of respect to the mayorship, and Council presented Bellamy with a gavel plaque and a proclamation in appreciation for her time as an elected official.
In a brief speech, Manheimer said that Asheville is a diverse city, but that its different populations are united by a desire for an improving quality of life. In pursuing that, she said there are many chances as well as opportunities.
"Even after one hurdle is overcome, there will always be more," Manheimer said. "We value fostering and supporting our small businesses, things like locally grown food, we want to stay focused on truly affordable housing. These are the things that build a community."
She emphasized the importance of partnerships with Buncombe County and state government in pursuing these goals.
"What your city needs to do for you is invest to bring about positive change in the community," Manheimer said. "I believe that together we can work to grow our quality of life and continue to improve."
Several delaysAs recently as a week ago, it looked like the new Council might have a bit of a trial by fire, with a controversial East Chestnut Street development, the Avalon 192-unit South Asheville housing development and an overhaul of development oversight in the River Arts District all on the agenda.
But all those items were delayed, for various reasons. At the request of the developer, the Chestnut development was postponed until Jan. 28.
Council members were concerned that the Avalon's development required a rezoning of industrial land and that none of its units fit the city's definition of affordable housing. Representatives of the developer, Triangle Real Estate, asserted that the city has rezoned other industrial properties when another goal (dealing with its housing crunch) was more pressing, and that the rents will be reasonable for the area. Council delayed the project until Feb. 12 to consider these issues.
The River Arts District development overhaul was also postponed to Jan. 14 to give staff more time to prepare the exact details of the changes in oversight.
'We feel frustrated'During the public comment portion of the meeting Kim Martin-Engle, a leader of the EAST Community group, said that members felt frustrated because city staff had ceased working with them on planning for development and improved safety in East Asheville. Martin-Engle requested the resumption of that work and a corridor study for Tunnel Road similar to the one the city is currently conducting for the Haywood Road area.
"We believe the city, working with residents and stakeholders, can create a boulevard entrance into and out of downtown," Martin-Engle told Council. "Presently, the perception of many drivers is a roadway designed for speed. Tragically, since November 2012 two pedestrians have been fatally injured on this very corridor."
Planning Director Judy Daniel responded that reorganizations to deal with tight budget times have left planning staff unable to spend as much time with community groups like EAST. She agreed, however, that development planning in the Tunnel Road area should be a major city priority.
Manheimer noted that the Haywood corridor study had taken extra funds from the city for both staff time and hiring consultants.
Many Council members, especially Chris Pelly, a former East Asheville neighborhood activist, praised Martin-Engel and EAST for bringing the issue to their attention. They referred the matter to Council's Planning and Economic Development committee for further discussion.
Meeting recessedCouncil ended the meeting not by adjourning, but by going into recess. Members held a closed session to discuss a personnel matter, but didn't have a key staff member present (the member wasn't specified, but City manager Gary Jackson was absent). Council will reconvene at 3:30 p.m., Dec. 17, for that closed session, but members reported that they expected no public action at that meeting.